This story is part of Watching Washington, a regular dispatch from CBC News correspondents reporting on U.S. politics and developments that affect Canadians.
U.S. President Joe Biden says he’ll provide news soon on one of the most coveted bits of public health information at this stage of the pandemic: What happens to excess doses of COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S.?
With the United States hoping to have enough vaccines for every adult by May 31, there’s already speculation about where its millions of extra doses might end up.
Asked whether he intended for neighbours or allies to get access first, Biden said conversations have already begun with other countries.
“I’ve been talking with several countries already,” Biden said Tuesday.
“I’ll let you know that very shortly.”
WATCH | Canada talking to U.S. about surplus doses, says minister:
U.S. President Joe Biden says the White House is talking to several countries about sending them surplus vaccine doses once Americans have been immunized. Minister Dominic LeBlanc tells Power and Politics that Canada wants to be one of those countries. 2:37
Why this matters to Canada
Canada is among the countries pressing for access to that U.S. supply, though Washington has blocked exports of doses, including some close to Canadian soil, produced by Pfizer in Michigan.
Asked about Biden’s remarks, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc told CBC News Network’s Power & Politics that Canada is among the countries talking to the U.S. about obtaining vaccines.
“We’re certainly a country … that’s been having ongoing discussions with the Americans around a supply of vaccines for Canadians,” LeBlanc told host Vassy Kapelos.
“Obviously at a time when their government decides that they’re going to allow the export of vaccines made in the U.S., Canada would be one of the countries that would be having those conversations with the Americans.”
But LeBlanc said he’s not one of the Canadian officials talking to the U.S., and would not comment further because it was too early to be publicly discussing those conversations.
What happens next
Some American politicians have also suggested the U.S. should next send vaccines to its immediate neighbours, as part of reopening the borders between countries.
They include Vicente Gonzalez, a member of the House of Representatives from Texas who suggested excess U.S. supplies should be steered to Mexico and Canada, given the region’s economic integration and human connections disrupted by the pandemic.
In addition, Brian Higgins, a House member from a border area in Buffalo, N.Y., told CBC News in an interview last week that he’s urging the Biden administration to use all its leverage to help Canada get additional vaccines.
The U.S. is currently vaccinating citizens at a rate multiple times higher than Canada — and Higgins said evening out that disparity could help reopen the border.
Facebook said on Tuesday it will lift its ban on Australians sharing news after it struck a deal with Australia’s government on legislation that would make digital giants pay for journalism.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Facebook confirmed that they have agreed on amendments to proposed legislation to require the social network and Google to pay for Australian news that they feature.
Facebook’s co-operation is a major victory in Australian efforts to make the two gateways to the internet pay for the journalism that they use.
Facebook blocked Australian users from accessing and sharing news last week after the House of Representatives passed the draft law late Wednesday.
Initially, the Facebook news blockade cut access — at least temporarily — to government pandemic, public health and emergency services, sparking public outrage.
The Senate will debate amended legislation on Tuesday.
Frydenberg described the agreed upon amendments as “clarifications” of the government’s intent. He said his negotiations with Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg were “difficult.”
Australia in ‘proxy’ battle, says official
“There is no doubt that Australia has been a proxy battle for the world,” Frydenberg said.
“Facebook and Google have not hidden the fact that they know that the eyes of the world are on Australia and that is why they have sought to get a code here that is workable,” he added, referring to the country’s News Media Bargaining Code legislation.
The code would undermine the bargaining dominance of Facebook and Google in their negotiations with Australian news providers by requiring a negotiation safety net in the form of an arbitration panel. The digital giants would not be able to abuse their overwhelming negotiating positions by making take-it-or-leave-it payment offers to news businesses for their journalism. In case of a standoff, the panel would make a binding decision on a winning offer.
WATCH | Facebook blocks Australian users from accessing and sharing news:
Facebook feeds in Australia were stripped of news posts during a fight over government plans to make technology giants pay for sharing news content and there are concerns something similar could happen in Canada. 2:02
Swinburne University senior lecturer on media Belinda Barnet said the proposed amendments guarantee Facebook time to strike deals before the arbitration panel decides on a price for news.
Peter Lewis, director of the Australia Institute’s Center for Responsible Technology, a think tank, said in a statement that the “amendments keep the integrity of the media code intact.”
Google also had threatened to remove its search functions from Australia because it said the proposed law was unworkable. But that threat has faded.
Google has been signing up Australia’s largest media companies in content licensing deals through its News Showcase model.
The platform said it has deals with more than 50 Australian titles through Showcase and more than 500 publishers globally using the model which was launched in October.
Facebook said it will now negotiate deals with Australian publishers under its own model, Facebook News.
“We are satisfied that the Australian government has agreed to a number of changes and guarantees that address our core concerns about allowing commercial deals that recognize the value our platform provides to publishers relative to the value we receive from them,” Facebook regional managing director William Easton said.
“As a result of these changes, we can now work to further our investment in public interest journalism and restore news on Facebook for Australians in the coming days, ” Easton added.
Microsoft is teaming up with European publishers to push for a system to make big tech platforms pay for news, raising the stakes in the brewing battle led by Australia to get Google and Facebook to pay for journalism.
The Seattle tech giant and four big European Union news industry groups unveiled their plan Monday to work together on a solution to “mandate payments” for use of news content from online “gatekeepers with dominant market power.”
They said they will “take inspiration” from proposed legislation in Australia to force tech platforms to share revenue with news companies and which includes an arbitration system to resolve disputes over a fair price for news.
Facebook last week blocked Australians from accessing and sharing news on its platform in response to the government’s proposals, but the surprise move sparked a big public backlash and intensified the debate over how much power the social network has.
Google, meanwhile, has taken a different tack by cutting payment deals with news organizations, after backing down from its initial threat to shut off its search engine for Australians.
Platforms must ‘adapt to regulators’
The EU’s internal market commissioner, Thierry Breton, expressed support for Australia, in the latest sign Facebook’s move has backfired.
“I think it’s very regrettable that a platform takes such decisions to protest against a country’s laws,” Breton told EU lawmakers.
“It’s up to the platforms to adapt to regulators, not the other way around,” he said, adding that what’s happening in Australia “highlights an attitude that must change.”
Breton is leading the EU’s sweeping overhaul of digital regulations aimed at taming the power of the big tech companies, amid growing concerns their algorithms are eroding democracy.
WATCH | Facebook and Australia are in a standoff. Is Canada next?:
Facebook blocked news posts for Australian users as the government plans to make technology companies pay for sharing news content. There are concerns something similar could happen to Canadians. 7:37
EU countries to adopt new copyright rules
Microsoft is joining forces with two lobbying groups, the European Publishers Council and News Media Europe, along with two groups representing European newspaper and magazine publishers, which account for thousands of titles. The company has expressed support for Australia’s plans, which could help increase market share of its Bing search engine.
European Union countries are working on adopting by June revamped copyright rules set out by the EU executive that allow news companies and publishers to negotiate payments from digital platforms for online use of their content.
But there are worries about an imbalance of bargaining power between the two sides and the group called for new measures to be added to the upcoming overhaul of digital regulations to address the problem.
WATCH | Newspaper publisher on making tech giants pay for news:
Bob Cox, publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press, says local news could be in trouble if the government doesn’t take bold action. 6:09
Publishers “might not have the economic strength to negotiate fair and balanced agreements with these gatekeeper tech companies, who might otherwise threaten to walk away from negotiations or exit markets entirely,” the group said in a joint statement.
Google and Facebook have resisted arbitration because it would give them less control over payment talks.
Facebook did not reply to a request for comment. Google said it already has signed hundreds of partnerships with news publishers across Europe, making it one of journalism’s biggest funders and noted on Twitter that it’s working with publishers and policymakers across the EU as member countries adopt the copyright rules into national legislation.
While his daughter and her Grade 3 class were cleared to return to school on Monday, his son’s Grade 2 class must self-isolate for 14 days, even though the youngster himself was among those who tested negative.
The weekend’s testing blitz at Thorncliffe Park Public School — the first Toronto District School Board (TDSB) location selected for the voluntary testing pilot announced last week — saw 14 classes affected and sent home for two weeks. However, the rest of the school will remain open, according to direction from Toronto Public Health.
Nadaf is rolling with it, saying he believes teachers and staff have been trying their best to maintain health and safety precautions and protocols.
“What can we do? This is going on everywhere in the world,” he said. “They try their best, but at the same time they cannot prevent it completely.”
The goal is to improve tracking of the coronavirus and prevent transmission within schools, as well as to inform future public health decisions. While parents and health experts seem to be applauding the pilot, some are also highlighting shortcomings in how it’s being rolled out.
Over the weekend, testing also began in Ottawa at Manordale Public School, part of the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board. Amber Mammoletti, an occasional teacher working at two schools this fall, dropped by on Sunday to be tested with her son, Flynn.
“I think there’s people walking around not realizing they have it — no symptoms — so it’s just better to keep everyone safe: Get tested if you can and see what happens,” she said.
WATCH | How testing helped Cornell University become a model of COVID-19 prevention:
At the start of the school year, Cornell University implemented a strategy of regular testing and robust contact tracing on campus. The plan was expensive, but it’s prevented any major COVID-19 outbreaks at the New York institution. 8:19
School boards are working with local public health authorities to determine which schools to target over the next four weeks, but the expectation is that new positives will undoubtedly emerge, TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird said.
“The 19 cases we’ve learned about over the weekend [at Thorncliffe Park PS] as a result of the testing is a concern, but it’s not unexpected,” he said Monday.
“While this information is concerning, it really is the information that our public health officials need to know, because it gives them a better snapshot of how many of those asymptomatic people are positive cases of COVID.”
Despite the batch of positive cases arising from this first weekend, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce reiterated his assertion that “99.9 per cent of Ontario students are COVID-free” during a press briefing on Monday afternoon.
Acknowledging that “we still have work to do” in tracking COVID-19 cases in communities, he characterized the new testing initiative as an extension of the existing safety measures his ministry had announced.
“The fact that hundreds of children, students and staff have gotten tested [at Thorncliffe Park PS] in conjunction with the local public health unit I think underscores that the plan in place is … working hard to mitigate any further spread: identifying COVID cases, isolating them or moving them from the school, so we don’t have spreaders within the school.”
‘Canaries in the coal mine’
A targeted campaign of testing in schools — which in most neighbourhoods are considered trusted, known places — is a welcome tool that adds to the barometer of what’s happening in the communities they’re located in, said Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious diseases physician and assistant professor at McMaster University in Hamilton.
“Parents who may not be encouraged to go get tested in their local communities will readily take their kids to the school, which is a place they know,” he said.
“Things like this are going to be canaries in the coal mine. You kind of get a better sense of what’s happening in the community by doing these local testing strategies.”
He added the caveat, however, that the type of test being used will likely cause more chaos for families and schools.
For the pilot, Ontario is using PCR testing, which detects the genetic material of a virus. Although considered the gold standard, it’s also so sensitive it would “pick up kids who are infectious, as well as kids who were infectious two, four, six weeks ago,” Chagla said.
He suggested that they could have chosen rapid antigen tests, which flag active infections by identifying proteins on the surface of infectious virus particles.
The rapid antigen tests may offer a more precise picture “of who is really a threat to the community versus who had COVID six weeks ago, where they’re not really a threat,” Chagla said.
WATCH | Nova Scotia offers rapid COVID-19 tests in Halifax for asymptomatic cases:
Health officials in Nova Scotia offered rapid COVID-19 testing in Halifax to reduce the virus’s spread in the province by catching asymptomatic cases. 2:01
Though Toronto parent Jessica Lyons welcomes the introduction of asymptomatic testing, she said it comes months late and should be offered more widely.
“This is desperately needed,” said the mother of two school-aged children and an organizer with the Ontario Parent Action Network.
“Much more testing in schools — to make it accessible, to make it easy for parents and families and students to do — is really essential. So we support this pilot, obviously, but we think that it should have come … weeks and weeks ago, and it needs to be expanded.”
Back in Thorncliffe Park, among the Toronto communities hardest hit by COVID-19 this year, parents in the neighbourhood expressed concern about the new positive cases found through the testing initiative. But they’re also adamant about one thing: their schools staying open.
Remote learning last spring was “really hard for kids. We’ve seen the mental stress on our child and other kids,” said Osamah Aldhad, father of a second grader who he said really missed being at school.
“When we were kids, you know, we used to run away from school,” Aldhad noted.
“Now they’re actually really wanting to go to school, which is really important for them.”
Fox News has reached a settlement with slain Democratic National Committee employee Seth Rich’s parents, who alleged in a lawsuit that the cable news company exploited their son’s death in stories and commentary.
Both sides confirmed the settlement on Tuesday.
Rich was shot and killed in 2016 in Washington, D.C., in what authorities described as a botched robbery attempt. His parents, Joel and Mary Rich, had objected to a Fox article and commentary they said falsely suggested their son had leaked DNC emails to WikiLeaks during the presidential campaign.
Internet theories that Rich had been assassinated for leaking emails were contradicted by U.S. intelligence reports.
A lower court had thrown out the lawsuit, but the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan last year reinstated it. The court said that the family had plausibly alleged what amounted to a campaign of emotional torture.
Rich’s parents, in a statement, said the settlement closed another chapter in their efforts to mourn their son, who was 27 when he was killed.
“We are pleased with the settlement of this matter and sincerely hope that the media will take genuine caution in the future,” the Riches, of Omaha, Nebraska, said.
Neither side disclosed financial terms of the deal.
“We are pleased with the resolution of the claims and hope this enables Mr. and Mrs. Rich to find a small degree of peace and solace moving forward,” Fox said in a statement.
Two executives with Pfizer Inc. sold millions of dollars worth of shares in the company on Monday, a day when the drug company announced positive news about a promising vaccine for COVID-19 that sent the shares sharply higher.
CEO Albert Bourla sold 132,508 shares in the drug company he runs, for an average selling price of $ 41.94 apiece. That would have netted him almost $ 6 million US.
Monday was the day the company announced promising results about its potential COVID-19 vaccine, news that sent the stock rising as much as 15 per cent. The selling price of $ 41.94 is within five cents of the company’s 52-week high of $ 41.99, which it also set on Monday.
According to a regulatory filing, the stock sale was planned well in advance under a plan that allows company insiders to sell shares without running afoul of insider trading rules. According to the filing, the selling plan had been afoot since August 19.
Bourla still owns 81,812 shares in the company — a stake worth about $ 3.5 million. But the sale on Monday does mean he sold almost two thirds of his original holdings.
He wasn’t the only Pfizer executive selling either. Sally Susman, who is the company’s executive vice-president, chief corporate affairs officer and a director on the company’s board, sold 43,662 shares, also for $ 41.94 apiece, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
That netted her more than $ 1.8 million US. Susman still owns 108,804 shares in the company, a stake worth about $ 4 million US at current prices.
Susman’s sale was also planned well in advance in accordance with rules, and was scheduled to happen on Monday as of almost a year ago.
Robert Langevin was scared he might die behind bars.
“I am an urgent case and I am a vulnerable human being. I have rights. This isn’t human,” he pleaded in writing with Quebec’s provincial ombudsman in March from his cell at Bordeaux jail, known officially as the Montreal Detention Centre, where he was awaiting trial.
The 72-year-old from Valleyfield, Que., had heart problems, and he needed daily medical care and an oxygen mask. “I don’t want to die here,” he wrote.
That was on March 27. A few weeks later, the jail where he was being held was hit by one of the biggest COVID-19 outbreaks in the country. Ninety-six inmates and 39 employees tested positive for the virus — among them, Langevin.
“I couldn’t care for my brother. It’s like he was abandoned,” his sister Pierrette Langevin said in an interview with CBC News.
A preliminary analysis by CBC News suggests that, despite prevention measures such as releasing thousands of low-risk offenders, infection rates are still five times higher in provincial jails and up to nine times higher in federal facilities than in the general population.
Overall, 600 inmates and 229 employees have tested positive for COVID-19 and three people have died in federal or provincial correctional institutions for which data was available, CBC’s analysis found.
Confined to cells 24 hours a day
Pierrette Langevin said her older brother was an optimistic man with a big heart who loved throwing dinners and block parties at his home, collected clothing for charity drives and would call the city any time a lamp went out at the neighbourhood playground.
He’d served time for a string of break and enters in his youth but had been keeping to himself and working odd jobs, including as a mechanic, an electrician, a bar manager and a butcher, before being arrested in December on drug-trafficking charges.
The family started worrying after Langevin stopped calling home in early May. They had no idea some inmates at Bordeaux jail were being confined to their cells for 24 hours a day — with no access to phones, laundry or showers — after a first case of COVID-19 was found.
On May 19, they received a call late at night from Montreal’s Sacré-Cœur Hospital. On the line was the jail’s chaplain, who told them Langevin likely wouldn’t make it through the night.
He died in the following hours, too sick to say goodbye to his family.
“It’s a shock. How come I couldn’t talk to him?” his sister said. “Why didn’t the jail tell us he was so sick?”
Higher risk for outbreaks
While the federal and Quebec governments regularly publish detailed figures on testing and confirmed COVID-19 cases in jails and prisons, the rest of the provinces and territories do not. In May and June, CBC News asked every correctional department in the country for its statistics on testing, confirmed cases and number of inmates. They all replied except Nunavut. Several provinces had zero cases to report.
Thirty-nine out of 137 provincial and federal institutions for which data was available, or one in four, reported at least one inmate or employee who tested positive for COVID-19.
“Even before COVID-19, we knew that prison environments were at high risk for outbreaks,” said Alexandra Blair, a researcher at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health who’s been tracking cases of the virus in federal jails for an upcoming study.
Blair said that much like residents of long-term care homes, inmates are more at risk in part because they live in close quarters with many common areas and interact daily with several employees for their basic needs, such as meals, access to the yard and showers.
“We have a lot of people crowded in small spaces, sometimes in buildings that are older that don’t have great ventilation,” she said.
“These are also places where everybody eats next to each other. They are perfect environments when you’re thinking about something that can be passed on through a cough or droplets.”
CBC’s figures also show how pervasively the virus can spread behind bars in a given institution: The majority of confirmed cases — more than 80 per cent — are concentrated in two provincial and three federal facilities in Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia, including Montreal’s Bordeaux jail.
The most-impacted federal penitentiaries are the Federal Training Centre in Laval, Que., and B.C.’s Mission medium-security institution — where the data suggests as many as a third of inmates were infected.
More data and testing figures needed, says expert
The numbers obtained by CBC are not a complete picture. Several provinces, including B.C. and Ontario, said they couldn’t break down their testing figures by jail or by day. Many didn’t know how many employees had been tested. Others didn’t specify if testing figures included multiple swabs of the same person.
“Having all that information will be essential for us now but also going forward with COVID-19,” Blair said. “The outbreaks that we see now are likely not the last.”
Available figures suggest 45 per cent of provincial inmates have been tested while 11 per cent of all federal prisoners have been swabbed, compared with nine per cent of the general population.
Infection rates were calculated using a snapshot of the total number of inmates per facility on one day between May and July, as provided by each correctional department. With the exception of B.C., CBC was not provided with weekly counts of newly admitted and released inmates. It is unclear whether the inmate population changed dramatically on a daily basis during the period we examined.
‘You have to be fearful,’ says Ottawa prisoner
CBC News spoke with current or recently released inmates in several facilities across the country, including a man who was held at Bordeaux with Robert Langevin.
“Things like masks and gloves, that all started at least three weeks too late,” said Claude Laberge, who was staying in Block C. He said at least 10 people were infected in that area.
Laberge, who now lives with his partner’s elderly relatives, said he got tested immediately after his release in early May and learned then that he’d contracted the virus behind bars.
“We would see guards, no gloves, sharing food or giving medication [to inmates] with no masks … and we would scream at them to distance or be careful,” he said. “It was causing a lot of sparks and tension inside.”
None of the current or former inmates were surprised to learn they are more at risk behind bars.
For those still incarcerated, they said they don’t have masks or gloves and are given little access to water or soap to wash their hands. Few physical distancing measures have been put in place, they said.
“My anxiety is always through the roof,” said Deepan Budlakoti. He’s being held at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre, which has no reported cases of the virus.
“You have to be fearful because at any given point, this jail could fall on lockdown.”
According to CBC’s research, at least 3,000 inmates across the country have been placed in isolation since the beginning of the pandemic in March to prevent or contain a COVID outbreak — including in facilities without any cases.
In a statement to CBC, Ontario’s Ministry of the Solicitor General said measures to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus in its facilities include “medical isolation of impacted inmates as appropriate,” but it stressed that “there is no blanket lockdown in our institutions in response to COVID-19.”
Correctional Service Canada explained in an email that all new prisoners, as well as symptomatic individuals or close contacts of symptomatic individuals, are placed in medical isolation “as a precautionary measure … to protect inmates that do not have the virus and those who may be more vulnerable.”
In June, the Correctional Investigator of Canada issued a report criticizing the practice of isolating inmates, stating, “My office is looking for an overall lifting of restrictions on conditions of confinement…. Rights need to be respected and restored,” it said.
“It’s a form of torture,” said a guard in B.C.’s Mission jail, where 120 inmates and 12 employees were infected — and another inmate died. CBC agreed to conceal his identity because he fears losing his job for speaking with the media.
Correctional officers were explicitly told not to wear masks in the early days of the pandemic, as management feared it would scare inmates, the guard said.“They’re not going to be intimidated because we wear a mask. In fact, the inmates wanted us to be wearing masks.”
Blair, the U of T researcher, said prisons and jails have a “toolbox of interventions” they can use to slow or stop the spread of infections, including ramped-up hygiene, universal testing and protective equipment for inmates and guards.
But if those tools aren’t used effectively and facilities rely only on long-term isolation, she said, “that is not … humane or just.”
The B.C. guard also said that despite management knowing an inmate tested positive for COVID-19, he was allowed to continue coming in contact with staff and other inmates for several hours afterward. This lack of precaution may have caused the outbreak at Mission, he said.
“I just look at it like they were just playing Russian roulette with everyone’s lives.”
Pierrette Langevin said she feels her brother lost that lottery — and that little was done to prevent his death.
“I forget about the inmate. I see the man, my brother, someone in pain who needed help.”
Both Quebec’s Ministry of Public Security and the provincial coroner have launched investigations into allegations of negligence surrounding Langevin’s death.
At this time, he remains the first death related to COVID-19 in a provincial jail in Canada.